RIGHT TURN ONLY!!
Holding Out For a Heroman
by Carlo Santos,
As chaotic as conventions are, there is one thing that's even more chaotic: cosplayers who have a week left to finish their costumes. Just watch as the days tick down. It's procrastination, crafting, and madness, all rolled into one ...
(by Yuuki Kodama, Yen Press, $18.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Imprisoned in Liz's Toy Box, Staz is surprised by a visit from his older brother, the very man he came to Demon World Acropolis to see. But Braz hasn't come to help Staz unlock the secrets of The Book of Human Resurrection. Instead, he's come to release Staz's true vampire powers, the same magic Braz sealed away years ago by putting a bullet through his little brother's heart. Staz's strength is needed to conquer a terrible threat that has appeared in the Demon World, and once again Staz finds himself a pawn in his brother's game. Unless he confronts this terror, the secrets of his brother's book will remain a mystery and Fuyumi will remain a ghost—if she doesn't disappear entirely first!"
Even as secret motives and demonic dangers come into play, Blood Lad still manages to remain its dorky, deadpan sense of humor. This is the kind of series where the hero sets out to kill a bloodthirsty beast—and does it by imitating attacks from video games and anime. Even little things, like conversational misunderstandings ("Ah, the Book of Resurrection? You want me to sign it for you?"), are worth a laugh. However, comedy isn't Blood Lad's only asset: there's also an addictive, ever-growing web of complications between the characters, as everyone wants something from someone else. Ghost girl Fuyumi wants to be resurrected? Ask Braz. Braz wants a demon slain? That's Staz's job. An unexpected kidnapping turns the story on its head? Little vampire sister Liz might know something ... The supernatural setting also opens the door to a variety of character designs, from monstrous beasts to impeccably dressed vampire lords (nothing says bad-boy archetype like being attractive and deadly). Dense linework and shading adds intensity to the fight scenes, yet the visuals can also pull back for a light, relaxed look during quieter moments.
The problem with Blood Lad is that it retreats to those "quieter moments" too often. For every well-executed battle, it seems there are several scenes spent on the characters just chatting amongst each other, figuring out everyone's motives. The Liz-centric chapter might be the very epitome of that: all they do for thirty pages is babysit this kid, until a dramatic event takes place near the end. It's also frustrating to see certain characters being rendered near-useless: Fuyumi, for example, is probably among the Top 5 most important people in the story, but all she can do is sit around and wait for the resurrection spell. At least she's still in the story, though, unlike supporting cast members who provide brief magical assistance then are never heard from again. The artwork also has some pretty glaring weaknesses, like the plain backgrounds during most dialogue scenes and even in the heat of battle. ("Let's fight in an open area" is just lazy-artist code for "I don't wanna draw.") The similarly-sized panels—always small or medium—and frequent talking heads also make the visuals unnecessarily dull.
The action scenes and light touches of humor work well, but there's too much small talk and bland artwork, leading to a C+ for this volume.
(by Tamon Ohta, concept by Stan Lee and BONES, Vertical, $10.95)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"The Skrugg invasion has been repelled thanks to the efforts of Earth's new heroes—Joey and Heroman. So for Joey and Lina it may now appear as if life should soon go back to normal in Center City ... Well, not so fast! A new form of terror, this time home-grown, has emerged. And they may be working with National Intelligence!!"
Believe it or not, but Heroman suddenly gets a whole lot better in Volume 4. This one-volume story arc is more engaging than anything that happened in the previous three, with new characters and conflicts taking over. Rather than a campy alien invasion and a rigid schedule of "Heroman vs. Villain" battles, this storyline weaves together a number of shadowy, mystery-filled subplots. Will a U.S. government investigation, and the resulting media smear, get the best of Heroman? Or will a mad scientist bent on revenge be the first to strike against the giant robot that stole his glory? How will Joey and Heroman get past an unexpected police blockade, or protect a town from being flooded by a nearby dam? Urgent life-or-death moments like these turn out a lot more interesting than brute-force space-monster battles. Even the art gets noticeably better, with backgrounds showing more detail as Heroman and Joey travel around the outer limits of Center City. Character designs and anatomy also look more confident, and the one thing Heroman always does well—the energetic, charged-up fighting action—turns out great as usual.
Even when Heroman gets better, it still finds ways to disappoint. Leading villain Dr. Minami is as cheesy as they come, constantly screaming about how much he hates Heroman and offering no subtleties to his personality. It's easy to understand the motives behind anger and thirst for revenge—but he has no vulnerable or redeemable qualities to balance that out, and so lacks the complexity of an antagonist like Will from the previous arc. This storyline also misses expectations when it ventures into family, friendship and romance: the arrival of Joey's big sister, an obnoxious punk rocker, is more flash and hype than an actual, useful addition to the story. (She moves a couple of plot points forward, but that's it.) Joey's brief date with Lina is another grand failure, bringing out all the usual puppy-love tripe—including a fanservice-laden trip to the beach—before mercifully being interrupted by an enemy attack. The art also lapses into its bad old ways from time to time, most notably in the flat, unrealistic portrayal of the city suburbs, and going overboard with messy effects and confusing angles during battle.
It's not perfect by any means, but this volume accomplishes the goal of being a brassy, Hollywood-style action-adventure, so it gets a B for that.
IS THIS A ZOMBIE?
(by Sacchi, Shinichi Kimura and Kobuichi•Muririn, Yen Press, $11.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"After Eu disappears, Sera is down in the dumps and, thanks to bad seed Kyouko, Haruna transforms into a meowing machine! But darn it all, undead Ayumu's undying wish is just to see Eu!!"
The humor of Is This a Zombie? ought to be pretty familiar by now, yet it still pulls off gags at the most unlikely moments—and makes them relevant to the plot. Who'd have thought that the series' most feared villain would suddenly turn up in an utterly mundane setting? And where else can Ayumu, the supposed hero, charge up his powers ... and have his spell fizzle out in surprisingly embarrassing fashion? Even a standard cliché like a planetarium date isn't safe from irreverent, plot-derailing outbursts. However, the series also finds room for serious moments, like when tough-and-nasty Sera shows an unexpectedly vulnerable side, and Eu (yes, she does get found eventually) resolves the lingering pains of her past. Meanwhile, the artwork is another source of absurd humor, as the deadliest monsters in this universe all take the form of unbelievably cute animals. And when Ayumu transforms into his cross-dressing, chainsaw-wielding guise, fans will be doubly entertained as they get to cheer on the hero's dashing moves while laughing at his ridiculous outfit.
Despite its comedic energy and magic-battling action, Is This a Zombie? never quite achieves greatness. In fact, it doesn't even achieve "pretty good," because mindless fluff and poor artistic decisions continue to bog it down. For every plot-relevant moment, there are five other scenes where someone cracks a joke about boob size, or the characters engage in pointless chatter. For every snappy visual gag, there are also inexplicable panel transitions (how did the characters get from there to there?) and sudden changes in viewpoint that disrupt the flow. Even the battle scenes come out sloppy, rushing haphazardly from blow to blow. The storyline also can't stay focused: are the characters engaged in the search for Eu, or are they trying to take down the King of Night once and for all, or is this about psychotic magical girl Kyouko wreaking havoc on the town? It's okay for the jokes to be unpredictable and come out of nowhere, but actual plot developments, not so much. As a result, the final confrontation in this volume lacks emotional weight, because of all the sidetracking during previous chapters.
The irreverent, unpredictable humor is always on point, but the distracted storytelling and inconsistent visuals spell a D+ for this volume.
RUROUNI KENSHIN: RESTORATION
(by Nobuhiro Watsuki, Viz Media, $9.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"During the violent upheaval of the Bakumatsu era, Hitokiri Battosai was a feared and ruthless assassin. But now that the Meiji Restoration has begun to heal the wounds of a civil war, Battosai has taken up a new name ... and a new calling! Himura Kenshin, a rurouni wanderer who has vowed to only draw his sword to protect those in need.
But not everyone is pleased with Kenshin's new direction, and enemies from his dark past have vowed to bring him down!"
This reboot of Rurouni Kenshin, intended as a tie-in with the live-action film, bears the ultimate seal of approval: the original creator himself worked on it. Nobuhiro Watsuki wastes no time sharing his passion for battle, with bold lines and over-the-top visual effects. However, it's the imagination poured into Kenshin's moves that make the artwork complete. He's got an array of instant-kill sword slashes, split-second countermoves, and even a finishing blow so powerful that the page has to be rotated 90 degrees to show how awesome it is. But enough drooling over the fight scenes—the series also introduces supporting characters who lighten up the story with humor, and briefly recaps Kenshin's past to remind us of how much drama lies behind the action. Meanwhile, the latter part of this volume contains a surprisingly creative one-shot: Kenshin runs into the cultural conflict between East and West, with entertaining results. A mysterious doctor wearing a "beak" mask? A mad Spanish assassin hired to take out Kenshin? It looks like this old series still has some new ideas yet.
It's great that Watsuki willingly came back for another go-round with the scar-faced samurai—but the same flaws are back as well. All he ever cares about is the thrill of battle itself, and doesn't bother to develop the characters. All the foes in this volume are bland, one-dimensional targets just waiting to be knocked down. You know the type: greedy, sneering scam artists with too much money and too little compassion. Where are the interesting back-stories? What were the circumstances that drove them toward greed and misanthropy? The supporting cast doesn't fare much better; they seem to exist only for the sake of providing the hero with necessary information or lending a helping hand. Artistic overkill is another dealbreaker for this series: Watsuki may be good with speedlines and sword strikes, but the results are so thickly lined and densely packed that they make some scenes near-unreadable. The worst part is, these scenes are meant to go by briskly, but when the messy artwork slows it down, how can any of it be enjoyable?
Fight scenes may well be this series' only strength, as the predictable shonen-action characters and overloaded artwork land it at a C.
(by Taiyo Matsumoto, Viz Media, $22.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"What is Sunny? Sunny is a car. Sunny is a car you take on a drive with your mind. It takes you to the place of your dreams. Sunny is the story of beating the odds, in ways that count, for a group of orphans who discover the car and let it take them to better places in their imagination."
To anyone else, the Datsun Sunny is just an old car. To Taiyo Matsumoto, it's the launching point for this thoughtful slice-of-life series, where foster-home kids have nowhere else to play except in a broken-down vehicle. Despite the grim circumstances, the story can be surprisingly whimsical—like when troublemaker Haruo sits in the driver's seat, imagining himself as an action-movie villain or professional racer. The car is also a center for coming-of-age moments, like making a childish love confession, or longing for a home that one can never return to. In between, the series also highlights the struggles of foster home life: dealing with judgmental school peers and authorities, trying to make up for a lack of family or clinging to the last shreds of one, and simply living day-to-day, trying to remain upbeat. Matsumoto's loose, unpolished art creates a unique vibrancy—the characters' faces come to life with odd expressions, and the imperfect perspective creates a wild and unpredictable look. Freehand lines in the backgrounds also keep the setting from appearing too generic; indeed, the mid-20th-century houses and bustling streets are very much an additional character in this series.
Unfortunately, Sunny suffers from the same directionlessness that plagues a lot of navel-gazing dramas. It's one thing to introduce the characters and have them work their way through various personal troubles, but how are they all connected? The chapters in Volume 1 don't really have any forward progression—they simply tell the stories of various people and various incidents at the foster home. Were it not for the recurring cast of characters and the shared locale, they might as well be stand-alone short stories. The content of these stories might also be too mundane for some tastes: you can't build a whole lot of drama around a typical school day, or chatting with friends in a broken-down car, or having a well-liked friend come over for a visit. There'll probably also be complaints about the art, which could easily be interpreted as "ugly" instead of simply being "unconventional." The rules of anatomy, proportion, and perspective are often violated to the point of being disorienting, and the way Matsumoto fills up an entire panel with character and background art can be overwhelming to the eyes.
It may not follow all the rules of proper storytelling or well-crafted art, but these snippets of urban life and the endearing characters are good enough for a B.
THE DARK-HUNTERS: INFINITY
(by Sherrilyn Kenyon, art by Jiyoung Ahn, Yen Press, $12.99)
FROM THE BACK COVER:
"Fourteen-year-old Nick Gautier doesn't have it easy. With a single mom struggling to make ends meet, his secondhand clothes aren't exactly making him popular with the 'in' crowd at school. No, Nick fits in much better on the streets of New Orleans—at least until his so-called friends turn on him! Rescued by the mysterious Kyrian of Thrace, Nick suddenly finds himself indoctrinated into a bizarre supernatural world, that of the Dark-Hunters, where he discovers that life isn't nearly so 'normal' as it once seemed. Zombified classmates and flesh-hungry demons are bad enough, but it's the dark hints about Nick's own future that are the most troubling thing of all.."
In a world where every other young-adult franchise is about supernatural happenings at a typical high school, The Dark-Hunters: Infinity does the smart thing and drops the high school element early on. Rather than wasting time on classroom scenes and clique wars, this series dives right into the good stuff. Monster-battling action happens as early as Chapter 2, and the reasons behind it turn out to be mysteries layered atop more mysteries. Is it a technological mind-scramble that's turning people into zombies? Is there a demon at work, manipulating weak-willed citizens? Is it all part of a greater supernatural conspiracy, where Nick is just a pawn being played, and his noble fighting spirit could just as easily be twisted into a force of evil? While you're busy pondering all that, this story also springs numerous hidden surprises about the characters, and the moody, subtly-shaded visuals create an effective aura of fear. The different types of monsters and magic are another artistic strength—zombies, demons and shapeshifters add variety to the cast, and styles of combat ranging from brute force to supernatural energy make each battle interesting.
Wait, wait ... what exactly happened in the ending? Like all Yen Press adaptations, one volume equals one story arc, but the finale is more of a mad collision than anything. Nick goes through a dramatic conflict, but what exactly is he fighting—the rage in his soul? And what about the other revelations so far? This volume sets up multiple subplots, but doesn't know how to resolve them. Instead it ping-pongs illogically from one scene to another, as if to say, "Remember this guy? And the shady business he's up to? Well, here's something else that has absolutely nothing to do with it!" This is meant to be a newbie-friendly prequel to the Dark-Hunters universe, but it juggles so many characters and storylines that it seems to demand some prior familiarity. The large cast of characters also means having to come up with a ton of character designs, and after a while all these slightly sinister pretty boys start to blend into each other. The heavy use of medium-gray screentones, and not very many black and white extremes, also gives the artwork a monotonous look at times.
Fast-paced fights and surprise twists are a plus for this volume, but a confusing tangle of storylines (especially at the end) hold back its potential for success.
(by Svetlana Chmakova, Tokyopop)
Among the sprawling masses of internationally produced, English-speaking "manga-style manga," Dramacon stands well above its peers. It's one of the rare original projects that really worked out well for Tokyopop, and for good reason: everyone instantly falls in love with the charming characters, the witty, self-aware comedy, the breezy artwork, and—oh yes—youthful, wide-eyed romance. The best part, though? It takes place over three years at a fictional anime convention. That is Dramacon's greatest gift to the world: that it captured the spirit of convention culture at the dawn of the 21st century, explaining in comic-book form what "those anime kids" are all about.
The story centers around typical teenage girl Christie, whose interest in anime leads her to her first-ever convention ... and soon turns into a life-changing experience. She learns who her true friends are, dumps her awful control-freak boyfriend, and falls in love with a mysterious but kindly stranger named Matt. And that's just Volume 1. This would all be pathetically clichéd if not for the fact that the main characters all have likable, real personalities, the portrayal of convention life is stunningly accurate, the dialogue is constantly witty, and the story always steps back to laugh at itself. Volumes 2 and 3 take us through more advanced topics in fandom and adolescence, from the dreaded "Is it real manga if you're not Japanese?" debate (just draw whatever you like, guys!), to the mysterious aura of big-name industry veterans and cosplayers, to the difficult career choices and life decisions a teenage geek must face. What's more, the series does it all with confident, lighthearted visuals and a warm love for the fandom—it never dips into crass cynicism like other satirical works.
In the years since Dramacon came out, convention culture has already changed by leaps and bounds (where are all these grey-skinned people coming from?), but the basic principles remain the same. As long as pop culture exists, and as long as young people are drawn into that culture, there will always be conventions, there will always be drama (good and bad), and there will always be Dramacon—a supreme expression of how that world works.
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